Actor Vinod Khanna (Photo: His Twitter profile)
It was sometime in December, 1989. I was on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi after completing an assignment. A couple of minutes before the takeoff a tall man with an imposing figure and with bronze-copper Aviator sunglasses boarded the plane. He unobtrusively found his aisle seat and settled down without much fuss despite the hush he had caused. He was the actor Vinod Khanna seated in the row just before mine.
The pre-takeoff hubbub had fallen silent among the passengers closest to him. He looked larger than his screen presence. His bearing was amiable without being familiar. He knew he was being looked at intently by his fellow passengers. He offered a general hint of a smile at no one in particular. Five minutes after the takeoff he was fast asleep. There was a faint whistling, snoring sound. I could tell because I was in the aisle seat right behind him.
My instinct as a journalist was to wait for him to wake up and then exchange a few words; perhaps fix up an interview. I was particularly interested in his association with Rajneesh who had spoken to me with some fondness about the actor. “For an actor, he is not so self-absorbed,” Rajneesh had told me and stopped before venturing into offering a more detailed view.
About 40 minutes into the flight Khanna was wide awake. He was traveling alone and surprisingly in the economy. The middle seat next to him was left empty, evidently in deference to his stardom. By 1989, he had been one of India’s biggest stars nearly rivaling Amitabh Bachchan. The passenger in Khanna’s row by the window had practically shrunk into an embryo because of the august presence. I saw him look in Khanna’s direction and smile rather obsequiously.
After the refreshments were served—of which Khanna took only coffee and I nothing—did I introduce myself. I was then chief correspondent for South Asia of the India-Abroad News Service wire. He greeted me with a quick smile and hi. I briefly told him why I was seeking an interview—Rajeneesh was mentioned immediately by me—and he gave me his contact number. I returned to my seat. Khanna went back to his quietude occasionally broken by a fan seeking an autograph. Some ten minutes or so later, his head stuck out, turned towards me. He asked, “What did Bhagwan say?” Bhagwan being Rajneesh. “He said for an actor you are not so self-absorbed,” I told him. He laughed and went back to his quiet self.
On landing at Delhi, there was a small retinue of people waiting to pick him up. He had only a carry-on suitcase. Three men who were there to receive him practically dived to relieve him of the suitcase’s burden. That was the only time I saw a touch of stardom to Khanna. He did not even look at who might eventually grab the suitcase as he just let go of it. All three men caught it before it could touch the floor.
He melted away into the exit.
I never called him for an interview. I also never met him after that.
With his passing today at the age of 70, Hindi cinema loses an outstanding talent. His performances were almost invariably competent no matter what the quality of the film. His obvious good looks did not overwhelm his intrinsic artistry.
It is entirely possible that I would have enjoyed an interview with Khanna but that short interaction onboard an Indian Airlines flight was good enough for me.
So here is to Vinod Khanna.